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Volume 16, Issue 3: Thema

Playing with Knives: God the Dangerous

Douglas Jones

"A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated—I trembled."

But he didn't stop. After all, he had tricked this hated friend there with a smile. The friend's insults had become too much to bear; revenge was necessary. They had laughed together just moments before. He had even expressed worry over his drunken friend's health. Then he fastened him to the cellar wall, a short chain from the wall padlocked around his waist. More laughter, confusion. Then he stood back and started walling the friend in, brick by brick. The chained man wore a cone-shaped hat for carnival, dangling with eye-sized bells. When his piercing screams started, the man building the wall mimicked him louder until the friend went silent.
"But now there came from out of the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice." The friend asked if this was all a joke: "a very good joke indeed—an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it." But the final brick was in place, and the friend would die, chained behind the wall, deep in the cellar. Never to be found. The last thing heard from the friend was, "`For the love of God, Montrestor!' `Yes,' I said, `for the love of God.'"
The Lord said to Abraham, "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering." Abraham split some wood and began traveling the next day. Three days later he saw the place. Abraham told his servants, "The lad and I will go and worship, and we will come back to you." So Abraham took wood, "fire in his hand," and a knife. "Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son." For the love of God.
We quickly have to separate this Abrahamic history from that famous Poe story above it, but that's not as easy as it looks. We could say Poe's narrator in "The Cask of Amontillado" clearly intends evil, whereas Yahweh doesn't. But nothing in the biblical text hints at that. The Lord doesn't offer Abraham any winks or qualifications. He doesn't tell Abraham (or the reader), look, this is a test—only a test. In fact, the situation for Poe's narrator seems a little more difficult to judge. It's unclear whether the "friend" Fortunato deserves this or not. Presumably he doesn't, but for all Poe tells us, Fortunato's insults might have been more than just words. He might easily be guilty of a capital offense against the narrator or a family member. We're not told that the narrator is in the wrong. It's left open.
The biblical text is less ambiguous and more frightening. Without qualification, the Lord commands Abraham to commit an obvious abomination, passing Isaac through fire. In Leviticus, the same Lord says, "you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God" (18:21; cf. 20:3). What has happened? It seems as if the character of God folded into some dark void. Has He given up on the promises? Has He given up on being God?
It's too easy to read the happy ending into the early part of Abraham's story. We now know the ending, so we domesticate the entire story, turning it into a rounded tale. We kill its horror. But actually to hear the original command would make most people suicidal. What hope is there if God Himself has become madness? It is an apocalyptic command. The core is exploding. The center has given way, the promises have split apart, God has decapitated Himself.
Perhaps Poe's narrator is morally insane, but God clearly is. And both use deception. Poe tricks Fortunato down into the cellar on the ruse of using his expertise to evaluate some wine. As they travel deeper and deeper into the earth, the narrator feigns worry about the potassium nitre polluting the air; it's making Fortunato cough more and more. "`Come,' I said, with decision, `we will go back; your health is precious. . . . You will be ill, and I cannot be responsible.'" All while planning to murder him. Yahweh isn't straight either. To say that Yahweh was perfectly explanatory would mean that he actually planned to have Abraham burn Isaac. But now we can see how the ending of the story heightens its horror. The whole thing is a staged play. Yahweh wants Abraham to work through a fiction. He could have been plain and avoided fiction. He could have just reasoned politely and respectably with Abraham, perhaps laying out a hypothetical ethical dilemma for Abraham to judge. But no, that's some safe god. Yahweh wants the play to run on.
The narrator of "The Cask of Amontilllado" appears unjustified, appears to plan evil; we're not sure. Jehovah God, on the other hand, commands a clear abomination. No explanation is given. Poe's narrator entices his victim with lies. Jehovah pretends to want Abraham to carry through with a wicked execution, and even keeps the game going up until the very last moment. He could have explained everything at the base of the mountain. Fortunato hopes his murderer is joking, but that's not true; Jehovah is "playing," though Abraham doesn't or needn't ask. Poe's narrator gives us the detail of setting in place the final, terrible brick. Jehovah allows Abraham to go so far as to lift the knife in the air.
We normally count a story as a horror story if it involves two things: threat and impurity. Serious threats alone would just be an adventure or war or cop story. Horror needs impurity. Monsters are impure; sometimes they are animal-human blends, sometimes walking dead, with flesh dropping off—unclean threats.
"The Cask of Amontillado" threatens death from the start, and though the threatener doesn't have the impurity of a rotting monster or a witch, the setting is beset with the impurity of death. He leads the friend down into the earth, a deathly image itself. The air is notably polluted, and the narrator has to clear some human bones for Fortunato to pass into the final chamber. When the wall is completed, he replaces the bones. More convincing to Fortunato, though, is to witness the horrific transformation of a friend into a murderer, and not just a swift murderer, but one killing by slow, dark decay. Threat and impurity.
God's surface dealings with Abraham involve both, too. The threat is obvious: Isaac is about to be killed. And it's a threat that involves a violation of the code of Leviticus—child sacrifice— an abomination about which the Lord says, "I will set My face against that man, and will cut him off from his people" because he has "defile[d] My sanctuary" (Lev. 20:3).
The Lord leads Abraham in the deepest and most dangerous form of horror play. He plays with impure knives. He is playing with innocent Abraham. What kind of a God does this? What kind of twisted mind traffics in fake abominations? "Consider the work of God; for who can make straight what He has made crooked?" (Eccl. 7:13).
Abraham vs. Job
Perhaps this dangerousness of God could be somehow explained away if it were limited to this one worrisome event. At least then it might not seem characteristic. But that's not what we find. Instead, through Scripture we find a constant theme of dangerousness, unpredictability, and wildness. At the same time, Yahweh shows us his orderliness, predictability, calmness, and a righteous arm. This just compounds the glory; it makes Him more fascinating.
In our pietism, though, we tend to insist that God is primarily Nice. Period. God is Nice and Nicer and Nicest. The chief end of God is to be Nice. I believe in God the Nice. Maker of Niceness. In heaven, we'll all be Nice. Pilate wasn't Nice. He was mean, and "mean people suck." This whole modern Christian litany is so tedious and tiny. Of course, other people—equally foolish—think the solution is to be rude and mean. Yeah, God isn't nice; He's rude. But Yahweh is neither Nice or Rude: He is dangerous and unpredictable. He is Trinity. He is Fire, and fire is hard to contain. Sometimes all the advanced firefighting technology gets overcome in a canyon by a storm of flames. Sometimes people freeze next to a tiny flame. Fire's edges won't stand still; its borders aren't easily traced. "Our God is a consuming fire." God's command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac came right from the center of flame. As H. A. Williams notes, "Whatever God wants in our relationship with Him, it certainly isn't respectability."
To Moses He was fire. To Ezekiel He wore the symbols of ox, eagle, lion. To Jonah He was a man-eating fish. To Balaam He spoke through donkey lips. Yahweh boasts in animals, especially wild ones. "For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are Mine" (Ps. 50:10,11).
The Lord seems to especially loves His horses: "Have you given the horse strength? Have you clothed his neck with thunder? He mocks at fear, and is not frightened; nor does he turn back from the sword. He devours the distance with fierceness and rage; nor does he come to a halt because the trumpet has sounded. At the blast of the trumpet he says, `Aha!' He smells the battle from afar" (Job 39:19-25). He loves it that they refuse to stop at the trumpet. What kind of God says that?
Yahweh reveals His dangerousness in hawks and eagles too. They are His artwork, revealing more of His style: "Does the hawk fly by your wisdom. . . . Does the eagle mount up at your command and make its nest on high? On the rocks it dwells and resides, on the crag of the rock and the stronghold. From there it spies out the prey; its eyes observe from afar. Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is." (Job 39:26_30). The NIV gives, "His young ones feast on blood." But why the detail about blood? Do we really need that? Can't we just talk about porcelain doves? No, God is gloriously dangerous and noble like an eagle. Solomon recognized that "the way of an eagle in the air" is just "too wonderful" (Prov. 30:18,19).
Yahweh reveals Himself in a cheetah kill. Oh, those nice, soft, delicate antelopes. It would be nice to pet them. They should be protected. "Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions?" (Job 38:39). God can. He's on the run and right in the middle of the lion kill. He boasts in giving them food. He satisfies lions.
Does that mean God hates deer? He's made them just for food? Of course not. He boasts in them too. "Can you mark when the deer gives birth? Can you number the months that they fulfill? Or do you know the time when they bear young? They bow down, they bring forth their young, they deliver their offspring. Their young ones are healthy, they grow strong with grain; They depart and do not return to them" (Job 39:2-4). He loves them and sometimes loves to feed them to lions. That's the God of Abraham. And that's the God Job didn't fully embrace.
For all the legitimate praise Job deserves (James 5:11), he was a pietist. His counselors were even worse pietists, the mechanistic variety. Doubly obnoxious. His wife was worse. She was a sentimentalist: "curse God and die." She resented the life given to them. Job stood at the center of a huge play, just like Abraham did. The Lord could have been straight with Job, but instead He took the crooked, dangerous path again. He didn't tell Job he was an actor in a play within a play. Job should have realized on his own. Death began to rain down on Job. The Lord took Job down into the wine cellar, chained him in, and started piling block upon block. To his credit, Job didn't respond like his wife, but he also didn't respond like Abraham. Job was righteous, but not mature. He "feared God and shunned evil," but that's not enough. He didn't know the God who plays with knives.
We often read the closing chapters of Job as a massive intellectual power play. We think of it as God pulling rank on Job. You, Job, are nothing, and I am huge and sovereign and Egyptian. Do not raise any questions against me. But that doesn't fit with Yahweh's actual answers. Why would God argue that storks are kind and ostriches stupid to prove His sovereignty? We're actually told that Job had mastered his catechism on sovereignty; he "feared God." Job did lack understanding, but he didn't have to be convinced that the Lord knew more and was intellectually superior. That was a given.
But pietists like Job resist the dangerousness of God. They don't love His style. They merely "shun evil." That's the lazy trait of pietists everywhere. It's a good trait, but only a first step. You have to love the lion kill, too. You have to love eagles feasting on blood and horses running for war. That's God's style also. Job could never have passed Abraham's test.
The Lord's complaint against Job is not that Job didn't respect authority; Job did. It was more of a gross failure of friendship. Job claimed to be a friend of God, but he wasn't. He didn't really know the character of Yahweh. He wasn't familiar with God's style. Job knew from a distance. He knew God as a catechism answer. I'm sure Job could quickly recite that "God is a Spirit, in and of Himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present. . . ."
As glorious as that summary is, it tells us nothing about God's character. It gives us no direction how to read the command to sacrifice Isaac. We learn the outside framework of God but not the sort of character He is. All it gives are generalities (important though they are). Imagine if you had to marry someone knowing only this abstract bit of information. It would be similar to saying, the person you are to marry is male or female, really nice, just, fair, kind, mortal, mammal, human, and breathes. Normally, we demand more information than this. It lacks character. But Scripture constantly gives us stories that reveal the personality of God. The horror story from Abraham does that. God's answers to Job tell us much about what Job didn't know. He didn't know that God makes straight things crooked. He didn't love how God satisfies hungry lions. Job didn't maturely love the God of Abraham.
Annie Dillard's Tameness
In some of her writings, Annie Dillard provides great pictures of the dangerousness of God. Her "an Expedition to the Pole" ranks as one of the best pieces of prose out there, ever. It weaves the story of a visit to the Arctic with a simple modern worship service, with much more going on. The Arctic history and danger clash wonderfully with the too-easy worship. The tension between the two scenes increases until she says, "On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."
Here God is dangerous, wild, and unpredictable. He is dynamite and a kidnapper. That's the God of Abraham.
Something changes, though. Perhaps too much Emerson tames Ms. Dillard at times. In her writing about confronting evil, she seems to leave behind her dynamite God in favor of someone Nicer. Most recently, in For the Time Being, she insists, "God is no more blinding people with glaucoma, or testing them with diabetes, or purifying them with spinal pain, . . . or to kill by AIDS or kidney failure, heart disease, childhood leukemia or sudden infant death syndrome—than he is pitching lightning bolts at pedestrians, or setting fires." Why wouldn't a dangerous God do these things? She elsewhere infers, "the semipotent God has one hand tied behind his back." Such cleanliness and ease this sort of response provides! All the drama is drained out of life. To the usually breathtaking question, "If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?" (Amos 3:6) we're only allowed to whisper a resolute, pietistic "no."
In Holy the Firm, Dillard writes of a horrific accident in which a young girl, Julie, has a ball of ignited fuel vapor melt her face. "Can you scream without lips?"
Has God a hand in this? Then it is a good hand. But has He a hand at all? Or is He a holy fire burning self-contained for power's sake alone? Then He knows Himself blissfully as flame consuming, as all brilliance and beauty and power, and the rest of us can go hang.
A few pages later, reflecting on Christ's answer that the man born blind was to make God's work manifest, she adds,
"The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we're all victims? . . . Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flamefaced children, to remind us what God can—and will—do?"
This is the voice of the prodigal's older brother. This is the voice of the lion tamer. "Use food treats which are highly palatable and not part of the animal's regular diet." Like so many moderns, Dillard can't escape the obsession with power. It's a tell-tale sign one is thinking like a brute monotheist. She speaks with the unitarian assumption that God is ultimately simple and serene, no inner tension, no playing with knives.
The fact that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not remove the mystery or anguish of evil, but it certainly foreshadows it. We should be ready. Tension is at the heart of the Trinity. Different pressures are at play. Within the Triune Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love one another, and indwell one another in perfect harmony. They are a fugue—a complex, interwoven melody. But fugues involve tension and dissonance to work well. Bach the Trinitarian was a master of dissonance.
The unitarian assumes any difference or dissonance is bad. The Trinity assumes difference is a glory. A fugue does not glide through time with one tone. A fugue involves holy tension, like the Trinity. That is a natural part of the character of God.
When that Triune and holy tension manifests itself in a fallen world, in a play the Trinity itself provoked, then we see the dangerousness of God in flamefaced children. Then we see the dangerous mercy of God in the death of Job's family. "The fire of God fell from heaven . . . and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you."
The God of Abraham does not pen Hallmark cards. He is not a corporate risk manager. He is not a cruise director aiming to make our trip as pleasant and comfortable as possible. He is here to overturn tables and create people who can run alongside Him. "If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses?" (Jer. 12:5). He wants a people like horses, people whose necks are "clothed with thunder," "mock at fear," and do not stop at the sound of the trumpet. It's not about power; it's about character and tension and Trinity. In the midst of this intricate play of history, tension is normal. Trials and evil are normal. How dare we be surprised by evil? How dare we wish it away, pining for the nursery? That is not the world of the God of Abraham. Williams, again, observes, "Conflict . . . is absolutely necessary if our relationship with God is to grow into maturity. And unless this absolute necessity is recognized, we shall misunderstand what is happening to us and be weighed down by an appalling load of guilt; or we shall press the conflict so that it can find only a sneaking and perverted expression below the level of consciousness while we apparently remain God's good little boys, futile and ineffective half-people."
Yahweh yearns for "godly seed," and for Him that means He wants people who are people like Him, people who are holy, merciful, unpredictable, and dangerous.
Abraham's Response
Abraham reveals the best answer to Yahweh's command to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham understood the character of personality of God better than we or Job do. Good friends know what the other is thinking, how the other behaves, when he is playing.
We must remember what Abraham had been through up to that point. He had obeyed God's call out of Ur, fought a war against kidnappers, struggled with Pharaoh, watched Sodom explode, and been circumcised. God's crookedness wasn't new to Abraham.
Abraham reveals much about his relationship with Yahweh when he laughed at Him. In Genesis 17, God informs Abraham that Sarai will give birth to a son. "Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, `Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?'"
Think about this response. Can you imagine God speaking to you audibly? Then can you imagine falling on your face and laughing at God? Abraham is not even so much laughing in joy here, as he is laughing about the bizarreness of being very old and having a child. He is laughing at God's highly counterintuitive plan here. Only a friend could do this. It's not disrespectful or irreverent laughter. It is the laughter of a friend who knows and loves. It is this same Abraham who carries Isaac up to be sacrificed.
And yet, almost always, we see Abraham portrayed in the sacrifice episode as distraught, grief-stricken, and faithless. One commentator says that this was a "heart-rending trial" and another says that "the words `take now thy son, thy only son Isaac' gripped Abraham's heart." Another says that "Abraham anguished" over the loss of his son. I once watched an actor portray an account of Abraham in which the actor wept and wept over the command to kill his son.
Kierkegaard's reading also seems to miss the point in a large way. Even if you dig out of Kiekegaard's gross individualism, he still muzzles the personality of God in this passage. You can only leap into absurdity if God's character is a void.
But the text doesn't give any of these responses. Why do we accept them? We are little unitarian Jobs. Abraham was truly tested; the text says that. But we have no hint of anguish or weeping. Why couldn't Abraham's faith be pictured as victorious and bold? He might have gone whistling up the mountain without a hint of anguish, because He knew the character of God. The character of God overflows any void.
We get clearer commentary from the book of Hebrews. Abraham wasn't anguishing; he was confident. He told his servant he and his Isaac would return in a bit. Hebrews 11:17-19 says that "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, `In Isaac your seed shall be called,' concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense."
Abraham inferred resurrection. Not an expected move. But he wasn't dealing with a pasty God. With a dangerous God, faith most often means thinking counterintuitively. "Let God be true, though every man a liar." Being a friend of God means assuming that surfaces aren't the whole story; it means assuming the truth is often the opposite of where everything appears to be heading. "You have put all things in subjection under his feet, but . . ." Abraham was trained in counterintuition. He already knew that Yahweh played with knives. Knew that God liked crooked things and eagles. He assumed that God was dangerous enough that He could have Abraham execute Isaac and then raise him from the dead. For Abraham, the command to sacrifice Isaac was only a horror story on the surface. He saw through it. He knew that God was holy, compassionate, and dangerous.
No wonder Abraham was a friend of God. He wasn't embarrassed by Him. He loved His dangerousness. That's how you become a friend of Jehovah.
Danger on the Cross
Of course, we can't grasp the full dangerousness of God until we see the completion of Abraham's sacrifice. It finds its completion not just in the ram substituted for Isaac. The entire story is a tunnel to the future. By itself it is incomplete.
Scripture gives us many famous parallels. Both Isaac and Christ were only sons, and both were born by miracle births. Both were taken to Mount Moriah, the northern edge of the temple Mount, Golgotha. Both Isaac and Christ had wood placed on their backs. Both had a three-day trial followed by a resurrection.
But at Mt. Moriah in Christ's time, the players are not Abraham and Isaac, but God the Father and God the Son. Christ, not just the perfect Lamb, but also a dangerous animal—the Lion of the tribe of Judah. And in Christ's time, the story gets even more horrific. The apostles even missed it. This time no one stops Abraham's knife, and the Father sacrifices the Son. It was the holiest danger imaginable. Selfless. Noble. Unpredictable.
Most of us look in Abraham's direction and long. Job's response is easier. I certainly couldn't play Abraham in front of a flamefaced child. We're all heads-down, counting mint and anise and cummin, while the Trinity puts on this amazing opera of history. Oh, to have the instincts of Abraham. To be quick enough to recognize the dangerousness of God in the face of evil and respond in awe: "Dammit. You're going to raise him from the dead, aren't you?"
This is the mind of Christ. This is the God of Abraham so fascinating and overflowing with life. But T.S. Eliot. "Human kind cannot bear very much reality."

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